In Review

Africa’s Eden: exploring the Okavango Delta

The wetlands of northern Botswana offer a safari like no other

The Okavango Delta is probably the closest any of us will get to the Garden of Eden. It was here in northern Botswana, about 200,000 years ago, that the first modern humans were born.

They lived on the shore of a lake the size of Scotland, fed by rivers stretching across much of modern-day Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia. Today, though, the area is mostly desert. All that remains of the old superlake is a network of waterways which fan out across the dry land like branches of a fallen tree, nourishing one of the world’s richest, strangest ecosystems.

Most visits to the Okavango begin with a light aircraft flight - an ideal introduction to the lay of the land. Having taken off from the parched border town of Kasane, I was soon looking down on the delta’s verdant patchwork of pools, islands and sinuous streams.

The Wilderness Safaris lodge at Chitabe is in one of the drier spots, its smartly furnished tents and timber walkways built into an outcrop of trees. I had arrived at the end of a long drought, but a strip of lush grass in front of the camp marked the course of a narrow stream which pulls in thirsty animals from miles around. Animals like the bull elephant which strolled towards my tent and reached above the canvas roof to pluck a trunkful of leaves while I unpacked.

Okavango Delta elephant

He paid me little attention as I crept to get my camera. After taking a few photos, I simply sat and watched as he ate. The elephant, so familiar in the abstract, is truly odd up close. Astonishingly dextrous, he would twist the tip of his trunk around a few blades of grass, pulling them tight before cutting them off at the root with his toe.

Distracted by his gentle presence, I did not notice the storm gathering around us. The sky had darkened, the temperature had dropped and wind was tugging at the ropes of the tent - and then the rain came down in sheets. Twenty minutes later it stopped, just in time for afternoon tea, and we set out on our game drive with the sun in our eyes and the indigo-black cloud in retreat.

Okavango Delta sunshine and storm

Outside camp we encountered a troop of baboons, a species much-maligned for its near-human capacity for guile and aggression. On this occasion, though, we saw the endearing side of primate society: a tender exchange between a young baby, his mother and an adult female which wanted to pet the youngster. The mother and child tolerated the attention for a few minutes before she was distracted by food and he went off to play with a stick.

Okavango Delta baboons

We dodged storm clouds all afternoon, staying dry as we admired the aerial drama: first a double rainbow and then the persistent flicker of lightning. When we happened upon the skeletal remains of a leadwood forest - the trees had drowned during a flood several decades ago; no-one knew exactly when - the conversation took an existential turn.

This new Eden, our guide explained, is now under threat from its most disruptive offspring. Human demand for water is increasing even as rainfall is becoming more erratic, and invasive plants, introduced upstream by farmers and nourished by their fertilisers, are clogging up the shallow channels. We lapsed into thoughtful silence, surrounded by the old leadwood trees, as the sky took on a suitably apocalyptic glow.

Okavango Delta sunset

The death of the delta would mark the end of an unlikely chain of events. Millions of years ago, the Okavango river stretched for thousands of miles from tropical rainforests near the equator to the Indian Ocean. Then an earthquake forced up a ridge of land that blocked its path and created the vast lake our ancestors would have known.

When the earth shook again and the superlake drained away, it left an improbably flat plain, onto which the river dumped more than ten trillion litres of rainwater per year. Left to its own devices, the water would have spread out evenly across the sand, but an unlikely alliance of big and small beasts began to reshape the landscape.

First the hippos arrived, tramping out paths that deepened year by year, creating streams which drew water east and drained some parts of the floodplain. Then the termites got to work in the drier areas, building their mounds of mud and sand, and giving a foothold to grasses, which trapped windblown soil and enriched it with nutrients that would sustain bigger plants and trees. Termite hill by termite hill, the islands of the Okavango were born.

Okavango Delta lion on a termite hill

One is now home to Little Vumbura, a beautiful lodge rin the heart of the delta. The camp reveals itself gradually, its open-sided timber lodge at first well hidden by tall papyrus reeds. Interiors are equally subtle, relying heavily on canvas, wood and an elegant collection of blankets and cushions.

Okavango Delta Little Vumbura

Surrounded by water even in this time of drought, Little Vumbura is best explored by mokoro. The traditional dugout canoe, propelled by a man with a pole, is a serene form of transport - and one which enforces a change in perspective. The reeds towered above me as I sat on the floor of the boat, my hips below the waterline, and we glided down a channel little more than a metre wide.

A few moments later we emerged onto open water and I was eye-to-eye with a pair of Angolan reed frogs - and then a tiny malachite kingfisher, his feathers bright in the late afternoon sun. When he deserted us, flitting away to a distant branch, a sense of profound tranquility settled around the boat.

Even if you saw nothing here but water, reeds and sky - and somehow missed the lions and leopards which prey on the Okavango’s herds of zebra and water buffalo - this would be a special place.

Dusk fell more gently than it had among the leadwood trees, suffusing the sky with a soft peachy warmth. A flock of storks flew low overhead, looking for somewhere to roost, and we sought safe harbour, too - a dry spot for sundowners - before turning back to camp.

In the quiet of the night, it was easy to imagine a world before humans. Perhaps the delta would have been better off without us competing for resources and upsetting the climate. Or perhaps this landscape, so dependent on a quirk of geology and biology, was destined to flourish and fade. At least, having overlapped with our own tenancy on this earth, it has been understood and enjoyed.

I made the most of my last evening in Eden, savouring the silence of the mokoro as we slipped through the reeds and I glimpsed our far-flung human outpost: Little Vumbura and its oil lamps, glimmering over the dark, glossy water.

Okavango Delta dusk

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